Saturday, June 1, 2024

Chimpan-A to Chimpan-Z: Get your stinking hands off me, you damn dirty human


Directed by Tim Burton
Written by William Boyles Jr., Lawrence Konner, and Mark Rosenthal

Spoilers: high

Up until an hour ago, my memories of Tim Burton's 2001 remake of 1968's Planet of the Apesor rather, his "reimagining," and I don't wholly begrudge Burton the phrase, but it's annoying to consistently usewere actually rather fond ones.  I liked it in 2001; I liked it when I rewatched it again about eleven years later, circa 2012; I strongly assumed I'd like it today, especially since I've not-infrequently called it, publicly, "a good movie."  This turns out to not be the case, much to my chagrin, yet I don't really have to modify the approach I was already planning on taking, not nearly as much as "my opinion has completely changed" should dictate, because the burning question about Tim Burton's 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes has been and remains, "yeah, but why?  I mean, really, how come?"

The short answer is, of course, "because it was valuable intellectual property owned by 20th Century Fox," and the enormous, more-than-a-quarter-century stretch between the lackluster finale of the otherwise-great Apes film series in 1973, Battle For the Planet of the Apes, and the 2001 remake is actually an accident of 20th Century Fox just being unable to get their shit together long enough to do it earlier.  Of course, if you'd rather interpret the series' history as "there wasn't anything left to do with the idea of talking monkeys, and they knew it," that's a position that's had a lot of pressure put on it since 2001 by the fact that they've managed to make fully four additional well-liked Apes films, including at least one genuinely magnificent one.  Nevertheless, I would still probably agree with you, considering how things stood in 2001.

There'd been ongoing attempts to relaunch the franchise starting in the late 1980s with director Adam Rifkin (a guy with a few nice movies to come before he sank back into obscurity, but not by 1988), invited to pitch a new Apes movie at the request of then-Fox president Craig Baumgarten.  Rifkin's Apes got far enough along to get a title, Return To the Planet of the Apes (very imaginative), and even to attach a couple of the folks who'd work on the one that did get made, champion makeup artist Rick Baker and, more curiously in the coincidence of it (because Rick Baker was always an obvious hire), Burton's best composer pal, Danny Elfman.  As far as I can tell, Return was basically just Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Men treatment, reheated: an actual sequel to PotA that carried on the Taylor story (now as a legacy sequel), which had been rejected as too unsurprising, even for 1970, back when they decided to make Beneath the Planet of the Apes instead.  The second phase of development, starting in 1993 (taking on the truncated title, Return of the Apes), was more of a top-down, studio-driven affair, with Oliver Stone initially tapped as its director, and it at least had some novelty and B-movie wooliness to it: with a screenplay from Terry Hayes, this one revolved around time travel, an ancient society of intelligent non-human apes*, and an apocalyptic virus developed by the apes as some sort of delayed doomsday weapon.  It didn't get made either, thanks to executive Dylan Sellers's apparent brain damage and desire for more wacky ape comedy in his movie about biowar genocide, and he was immovable on his insistence that there would be a scene of apes playing baseball, only incorrectly, and therefore humorously.

This second phase, which eventually dumped the prospect of either sequelling or going on any serious tangent to the established premise, leads us to Burton's actual movieit just kept rolling through development, picking up and discarding a number of possible directors, including Chuck Russell (ooh), James Cameron (ah), and Chris Columbus (hm), some of whom I daresay suggest themselves as more appropriate fits to the kind of Apes movie Fox wanted than Burton.  Escape From the Planet of the Apes?  Sure, that's a Burtonesque Apes movie.  But Fox's goals were more turn-of-the-millennium in nature: a big-budget, effects-heavy action-adventure blockbuster.  And despite something like a pedigree for that, even Burton's extremely successful big-budget, effects-heavy action-adventure blockbusters were not successful on the basis of effects or action, that's just what it took to give Batman and Batman Returns the world-building heft necessary for what they're actually good at, which is weird Burton characters being goth and freakish.  Burton took on the job anyway, and, while I'm agnostic about whether he ever got good at this kind of movie (I earnestly don't know, because I've seen only a few 21st century Burton movies), PotA '01 is shockingly anonymous whenever it moves beyond the odder tics of its background charactersit's already anonymous when dealing with most of its principal cast, let alone action sequencesand the film is, indeed, often considered to be the stark geologic boundary between the Classic Burton and Modern Burton eras.  (Though many would backdate it to Mars Attacks!, I, personally, like Sleepy Hollow too much.**)

So, in what way does PotA '01 reimagine its predecessor?  We'll get to it.  For now, we have USAF Capt. Leo Davidson (Mark Wahlberg), a space pilot assigned to the outer solar system exploration vessel Oberon (I don't get it), which mostly involves training the real daredevils of space, the genetically-enhanced chimpanzees, gorillas (apparently), and orangutans (I just saw a video of one confidently driving a golf cart all over a zoo, so this checks out) who go ahead of any human pilots to make sure the radiation doesn't fry them, or whatever.  One of these chimps is Pericles (twin P. troglodytes actors, Jonah & Jacob), dispatched into the maw of a cosmic storm and immediately lost; Leo thinks this is bullshit, and defies orders so as to retrieve his ape friend, and he's swallowed up in turn.  Leo is spit out on the other side of what turns out to be a full-on wormhole, light years from Earth.  Fortunately, he lands on another habitable planet.  Unfortunately, at least for Leo, this is the planet of the apes.

He's rounded up with a bunch of other fugitive humans, most notably Daena (Estella Warren) and her family, by the forces of the chimp general Thade (Tim Roth) and his gorilla subordinate Attar (Michael Clarke Duncan); shortly, he's delivered unto orangutan slavemonger Limbo (Paul Giamtti), and in the midst of Leo's first escape attempt, prompted by the propensity of privileged pro-human activist Ari (Helena Bonham Carter) to get so close to the human cage that she can be taken hostage, Ari solves the crisis by simply buying Leo and Daena and her brother and dad, and Leo begrudgingly goes along with it, for about twelve hours, before escaping from Ari's senator father's (David Warner's) home, which Ari obligingly assists.  His ultimate aim, because he's gotten a signal from the Oberon, is to get back to his ship, and get the hell off this planet.  It will turn out to not be anything so simple, since while they get to his ship, all right, it's now a dust-caked ruin several thousand years old.

This brings us to only slightly past the hour mark of this 120 minute filmthe longest Apes to dateyet I've somehow managed to communicate something like 80% of the film's plot points.  It is not, really, that PotA '01 is boring, but I'm honestly unsure exactly how it gets to two hours, especially when nothing about it (unlike PotA '68) feels in the remotest sense patient.  The key data point, I think, is that Taylor's capture in PotA '68 happens at least fifteen minutes later than Leo's capture, in a movie thatonce you account for the differences in 21st century creditsis still a couple of minutes shorter.  There's still action and incident here, and it movesanonymously, as noted, but it does move, unlike Battlebut there's not much to this one.  The other key data point, albeit a more subjective one, is that PotA '01 does not have a single line of dialogue that anyone who's watched it more than a week ago would be likely to remember, except for the lines it's echoing from the original for fanservice, or, as in the case of this review's title, the lines it's inorganically inverting for some hypothetical irony.

It's all the more perverse, because I've buried the lede of the big change: humans talk now.  They don't necessarily talk well, but that's because Warren, our principal non-Wahlberg human, is attempting (not unlike Wahlberg, in fact) to cross over from her previous "be very pretty" career (which came after an athletic career) to an actual acting career, and while I guess "basically a cavewoman" could seem like a natural stepping stone between those two things, it's probably worse for her, since it emphasizes how much her default non-speaking "acting" choice is to do a lips-parted sultry model face, and how even Linda Harrison's distracting 60s styling on a borderline-feral human isn't as jarring as 00s makeup on the same.  But in any case, the humans also never have much worth talking about, which is startling considering their origins.  I don't mind that you get ahead of the film quickly and figure out, possibly immediately, but certainly no later than "Leo gets a signal from his spaceship," that they're the descendants of his time-lost crew; but it feels like something was possible here beyond the boggest-standard cavepeople, perhaps cavepeople possessed of all sorts of theoretical scientific wisdom passed down generation-to-generation, yet stymied by agriculture or basic construction technologies, which their forebears would have no particular idea how to manage.  But this assumes some desire for "satire" or "something" in this continuation of a satirical franchise full of wacky prospects.  The apes remember better than the humans do: one of the better scenes is Charlton Heston's cameo (now under the chimp makeup), which has the added frisson of NRA prez Heston displaying a symbolically-loaded relic of "the time before time" and discussing how the gun is evil.  This is the closest PotA '01 gets to satire; it might've been by accident.

What it means for an Apes movie to have the humans actually be humans is that a huge part of its weirdness gets jettisoned, and for basically nothing.  There's none of the estranging quality of humans being reduced to non-humanity, while the non-human apes have achieved what we've arrogantly assumed is the pinnacle of creation, inevitably treating us like we once treated them.  Likewise, the ape society we get is pretty much an indifferently-presented Iron Agethe touchstone would be Republican Rome, I supposewhich is going to struggle to say much of anything interesting with its walking metaphors.  And so it doesn't really matter, now, that they are apes; they could be random aliens, and the movie would be largely the same, beyond the superficialities of Baker's makeup.

It leaves a pall on PotA '01, where the screenplay has no interest in pursuing much of anything beyond a low-effort planetary romance, which in turn is so low-effort that it's less a planetary romance than it is just an actual mid-60s peplum flick, except the Romans are talking monkeys now, so it doesn't have the built-in weight of history that even the shoddiest peplum possesses.  And hell, this is arguably fine, for one should allow B-movies to be B-movies, even when they're putting on airs, or exploiting the name of a classic science fiction franchise.  It doesn't really excuse how everyone involved, from Burton on down, appears to have gone into the movie purely out of fannishness, yet without any actual ideas, even fan fiction ideas, to bring to their gaudy "reimagination" of the original films.  Or, at least, exceedingly few ideas, and fewer still that they were willing to meaningfully execute on.

The biggest notion that Burton pursuesI don't think it's justified to call it "an idea"is a love triangle, which Wahlberg appears to be straight-up unaware is supposed to be happening to him, and it's mainly a creature of Bonham Carter throwing chemistry at Wahlberg, and of Burton dropping in reaction cutaways to Warren demonstrating how utterly enraged she gets (though parted lips) whenever the lady chimpanzee talks with the space man.  It may be, above all, a creature of how Burton was presently in the process of transferring his affections from his then-girlfriend, actor Lisa Marie (also in the ape cast here), to Bonham Carter, which is an odd place for such a thing to happen, perhaps, but hey, Burton is an odd guy.  (Bonham Carter is, in fact, kinda cute in her ape makeup; one could do worse.  However, it's probably best not to picture the uncanny horror of Bonham Carter with chimpanzee genitalia.)

Anyway, this goes... nowhere whatsoever.  Even the end flip-flops like a Goddamn dying fish, and just has him make-out goodbye with both of them; it's maddeningly noncommittal and scared.  As for whether "apes in pseudo-Roman (sometimes pseudo-Egyptian) costumes, riding inexplicable horses" works out to any good peplum action, the answer there is "not really," though one thing Burton does commit to, very hard, is the idea of the apes' physical superhumanity, which is kind of idiotic throughout; the exception, obviously, is when enormous strength is embodied in the gorillas, but there's an outright raving lunacy to the stuntwork in this movie, in its insistence that chimps can leap forty feet through the air, or punch humans across rooms, and so forth.  It's not unexciting, but there's an abiding silliness to all of it, with so much of the film's action being what I'd describe as "graceless wuxia."  A lot of the action scenes are pure "working with coverage," probably thanks to this stuntwork foundation, and frequently feel clumsy and without much if any storytelling emphasis.  (Burton's blocking can be outright terrible: the denouement of the big battle at the end involves the prophesied second coming of an ape mythological figure, and so of course their hated human enemy, who a few minutes ago was killing them by the score with his future technology, just walks right up to the apes' god without objection.)

I've dwelled pretty exclusively on the weaknesses here, but if I once liked the movie, I must've liked it for something, right?  And yes, there are good things.  Above all, there's Baker's makeup, which is just terrific stuff, a quantum leap ahead of the best John Chambers ape masks in the original pentology, and technically immaculate.  But there are beats, mostly during the first hour, where it's even an enjoyableeven Burtonesque, almost!exploration of a topsy-turvy upside down world, and at least one "actual Burton" design decision in the form of the aggressively contemporary hairstyles on the female apes.  (Bonham Carter is wearing something real close to a fucking Rachel, which is exactly the kind of crazy shit I like in my Apes movies.)  Overlapping with this, but extending well beyond it, there's something to be said about the "acting exercise" element that's perhaps the film's single most salient quality.  It's never the human actors, of course, and if I've not sufficiently implied that Wahlberg is as bland as foam here, and excruciatingly miscast, let me say so now explicitly; and it's not all the ape actors, either, Giamatti being surprisingly reluctant to get in on the fun, outside of a single shot where Burton hung him upside down.  But the director's only apparent personalized contribution was to punch up the atavism that was largely tamped down in the original films, which manifests with the aforementioned bouncing off trampolines (and stuntpeople doing "chimpanzee gallops," which is, I admit, cool to look at), but finds expression all over the place, so that Roth's performance (arguably the film's best, not that this is some stratospheric bar) might have more primate-aggression hisses at his subalterns and deferentially not making eye contact with his father (that's Heston) than coherent spoken dialogue.  Likewise, the whooping, shrieking nonsense Burton got his girlfriend (that is, Lisa Marie) to do as a chimp trophy wife, as apparent foreplay for her orangutan (!) husband, is one of the rare moments in PotA '01 that feels like it's confronting you with an image, whether you wanted to see it or not, which is how Apes movies ought to be.

There's also that humdinger of an ending, controversial since the film's release and, I assume, still controversial now.  Many have said it doesn't "make sense" but, actually, it does, it just doesn't hold your handthe wormhole appears to work on a "first in, last out" basis when going to the Planet of the Apes, whereas going the other way reverses it.  But this is only if you need it to make sense, which I do not: it's a hugely enjoyable riff on the original PotA's nihilistic twist, which, for an added bonus, even restores something more-or-less identical to Boulle's novel's nihilistic twist.  (Well, Boulle's novel's penultimate nihilistic twist.  It has, like, three.)  And that's great!  Put this at the end of a movie that had any other reason to exist, and I think 20th Century Fox would've really had something here, rather than a commercial hit that was so widely disliked that they didn't bother reviving their franchise again for another ten years.  But those ten years did make all the difference in the world, so maybe we owe Burton and his Planet of the Apes some thanks, after all.

Score: 5/10

*I learned the other day that they used to be grouped into their own clade, "pongids."  There are valid reasons for the modern phylogenetic sorting (homininae includes Homo, Gorilla, and Pan, i.e., chimps and bonobos, but they do not include Pongo, i.e. orangutans, which, to be fair, one would assume just from looking at a map); but, Goddamn, would it be an extremely useful informal category, not least when writing about Planet of the Apes movies.
**Then again, considering how PotA '01 hits me now, "but do I?" is a legitimate question.


  1. Holy cow for a moment there I legit forgot this movie existed. I recall being excited for it at the time because I found the idea of Tim Burton being forced to do something non-Tim Burton-ish intriguing, but disappointed that all he really did was make a very generic-feeling "aliens enslave humanity" movie. It was obvious he wasn't actually interested in the material and just made some random other movie wearing Apes clothes, and I always interpreted his infamous "re-imagining" comment as more or less admitting to such. Also it was REALLY soundstage-y. Phenomenal makeup effects, though. I also kind of liked that it had an actual chimp in it.

    If that 'Return to the Planet of the Apes' scriptment is the one I'm thinking of I remember it featuring a very off-putting amount of hard-R level violence.

    1. I'm still almost willing to give it a pass for having such a weirdly tight time travel conceit that contemptuously demands you figure it out entirely by yourself, despite in no sense otherwise telling the kind of intellect-activating story that would've prepared you for that task. But that's a pretty thin reed for a two hour movie.

      A hard-R Apes movie would actually be a new approach (well, somewhat new, Conquest's original cut is pretty violent, but it's 1971 B-movie violence, so it's just a lot of cherry red goop). Too bad Kingdom, which I assume is just doing another post-Rise sequel semi-pointless post-apocalyptic adventure, isn't the hyperviolent splatter Apes.

    2. I might've responded better to 'Gorefest of the Planet of the Apes' if I'd had advanced warning (which the R rating itself would've taken care of) and if it hadn't been a direct sequel to the original. I also wasn't sure what tone it was going for, at first I took it as a very serious affair but as it went on it seemed to be going for a more 'fun' adventure vibe. I think a director would've had a lot of room to interpret it.

      It can be a challenge sometimes to really suss out the tone of a script or treatment. Bloggers made a lot of hay over the proposed "dark" E.T. 2, for instance, but looking at it myself I think these folks read into it a much more frightening tone than was actually there (basically it all boils down to "villainous aliens").

  2. In all honesty the Ape effects in this film are almost certainly my favourite in the franchise (I love and admire the CGI work from the later films, but there’s nothing better than that real physicality you get from the very best prosthetics).

    Also, credit for having the good taste and sheer mischief to let Mr Heston go ape! (-;

    1. Yes, props to both the effects and the clever Heston cameo. I think a full minute had passed before I thought, "Wait, who is that...?"

    2. That is pointing to another thing to appreciate about it, its almost-a-little-behind-the-times complexion of practical makeup, practical effects, practical sets, and matte paintings. Not that it's all that good-looking (I didn't mention it, but the early-days blu-ray also isn't great and there's only a little to recommend about Phillippe Rousellot's photography), but it looks pretty comfortably like "a 90s movie" in a nice way.

      I like Heston's cameo but I wish they didn't need him to damn anyone to hell.

    3. Failing to let Charlton Heston hurl down Fire and Brimstone is a leading cause of failure
      In Charlton Heston movies! (-;